Questions we answer in this guide:
- When does a probation period begin and how long should it last?
- How to best manage an employee's probation period, from start to end?
- What options do you have when reviewing an employee's probation period?
While a job and a candidate can match perfectly on paper and even seem perfect during the interview process, it can be a different story once a candidate is in the role.
Although, with a robust selection process, a failed probation should be the exception rather than the rule, they do offer an additional level of protection.
These periods work both ways. They enable you, as an employer, to create a safety net when hiring, providing the chance to see how the employee works and fits into your business, before committing longer term.
Likewise, they also enable the employee to get a good handle on the actual role and your business before fully committing to the role.
When would a probation period begin?
A probation period will start from the moment an employee is hired and usually lasts for 3–6 months, although it can be shorter than this, or even extended by an employer on an exceptional basis (provided that the employment contract allows for such extensions).
During this initial period, some employment terms may be different, compared to those that are legally and/or contractually applicable after the probation period is complete.
Terms that may differ include arrangements relating to notice periods, truncated disciplinary processes, and additional benefits or allowances (e.g. a car allowance). A bit like a cooling-off period, this recognises the fact that the employment contract is not yet fully in effect and can be cancelled (though potentially not with immediate effect).
Put it in the contract
If you want to include a probation period for employees that you hire (and we recommend doing so), it should be made clear throughout the selection and offer process and you’ll need to provide for it in your contract terms with them.
Without a specific contractual provision that includes the right to set a probation period, you can’t remove a bad hire as easily and will have to rely on the contract’s normal notice provisions and dismissal process to terminate the engagement.
You can use our template employment contracts to create a contract that's tailored to you. Our Hiring Help template selector lets you choose the right contract for the kind of help you're taking on.
Best practice for managing probation periods
Clarity all round on the role and expectations of the candidate
Before your employee begins their probation period, you should make sure that he/she is completely clear on what’s expected of the role, how the business works, how any issues should be addressed, how their performance will be measured and that these considerations will be used to decide whether he/she is successful in passing the probation period.
Keep in touch and regularly review how you both feel
Make sure you freely enable two-way conversation and feedback during the probation period – this way, you can both allow each other to improve on any areas of underperformance before the result of the probation period is decided.
To help with this, set up regular ‘touch-base’ meetings where you can both get together to evaluate how the employee feels he/she is settling in and – if it’s necessary - to address any areas of disagreement between you concerning his/her performance so far.
Many businesses set a formal, interim probation meeting at a halfway point to see how things are going and if anything needs to be addressed. These are a great benchmark by which to measure progress at the end of the probation period and to help make the decision whether to confirm the employee’s engagement within your business.
Keep good notes, share them with the employee
As a manager, you should always keep clear and contemporaneous notes detailing the contents of your catch-up and probation meetings, along with any actionable steps agreed by you and the employee.
A good way to ensure a robust paper trail is to email your notes to the employee and ask them to confirm they’ve received, understand and (ideally) agree with them.
The aim, with all the above practices, is to avoid a situation where you decide not to keep the employee on and the employee accuses you of unfair dismissal because they weren’t given the chance to understand the role, improve any inadequate performance or to state their position in good time for a fair and constructive discussion to take place.
Deciding whether to pass or fail an employee
At the end of the probation period, you should invite the employee to a probation review meeting and let them know the outcome.
If the employee passes the probation period, you should inform them of this fact at the probation review meeting and then subsequently follow up in writing to confirm your decision.
If the employee doesn’t pass their probation period, you have a right to dismiss the employee within a short amount of notice (usually 1 week). Tread carefully here though as an instantaneous dismissal without following the proper legal process may expose you to an unfair dismissal accusation by the employee.
If the employee hasn’t quite met all expectations by the end of the probation period, but you want to give them another chance or perhaps some relevant training, you can extend the probation period – although, this should be the exception rather than the rule, and best practice would be to do so for no more than 3 months.
If you do decide to extend the probation period, you need to ensure your contract terms allow you to, and then let the employee know this is what you’re planning to do, before their original probation period is over. You must also let the employee know exactly why they didn’t pass and what is needed to pass the extension. Make sure you continue to assess and review the employee’s performance in the same way you did in the initial probation period, discussing your observations and any concerns with them at each stage and listening to what they say in response.
If you plan to dismiss the employee, you should invite them to bring a colleague (or trade union rep where relevant) with them to the final probation review meeting. At this meeting, you’ll need to explain the reason for the dismissal and give the employee an opportunity to respond to your decision. The employee’s colleague (or trade union representative) does not have the right to make representations on the employee’s behalf. They are there purely to support the employee and be a witness to the conversation.
Providing you go ahead with the dismissal, the employee will then be entitled to be paid for their relevant notice period and to receive any holiday pay that’s owed to them.
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